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amendment I: Freedomof Assembly page 3
The First Amendment's assembly and petition clauses--eviscerated by Big Money?

 Martin Luther King addressed civil rights supporters in 1963, relying on First Amendment protection of the right to assemble.
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Date published: 12/4/2005


But while the mall is a very public place in some senses, it is private property and hence not governed by the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to impose on the owners of these public spaces the requirement to honor people's assembly and speech rights there (though they left the door open for states to find such a right in their own constitutions). When our lives in public are increasingly conducted in privatized space, are conventional understandings of "public" and "private" adequate for a democracy?

A corporate colossus

Both these First Amendment freedoms illustrate the paradox of U.S. politics. On one hand, we have extensive formal guarantees of political freedoms that have been hard-won by dissidents and progressive political movements that pressed the courts and legislatures to expand the scope of freedom. But the concentration of wealth in corporate capitalism means that those formal freedoms--while never irrelevant--are increasingly less important in a world in which money is necessary to amplify our voices in mass media.

The distortion of a political process by our economic system is also obvious in the realm of the speech and press clauses of the First Amendment, where we face tough questions about how to counter the increasing concentration of media ownership in a shrinking number of corporations, and whether full First Amendment protection should extend to commercial advertising.

If First Amendment debates are to be productive--if they are to be part of a process that helps us re-energize a political system that an increasing number of people feel is irrelevant to their lives--we will have to come to terms with the inherent incompatibility of capitalism and democracy. The former is a wealth-concentrating system that also concentrates political power, while the latter is premised on the assumption of the diffusion of power.

To date, the Supreme Court has ignored this simple reality, as has most of U.S. society. Even the self-proclaimed guardian of freedom, the American Civil Liberties Union, has trouble thinking straight about the problems for democracy that capitalism creates.

But if the First Amendment is to be part of a real democratic future--one in which ordinary people have a meaningful role in the formation of public policy, not simply a place in the political stadium as spectators--lawmakers and judges will have to come to terms with this basic contra- diction.

It is unlikely they will confront the issue unless We the People force them to.

ROBERT JENSEN is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of "The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity."

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